Call for NHS to allow families see young people with learning disabilities amid isolation concerns

The NHS must instruct mental health hospitals to let families visit young people with learning disabilities and autism, amid concerns their conditions are worsening due to isolation, a report said.

Young inpatients’ human rights were already being breached before the pandemic, the Joint Committee on Human Rights found, and it believes the coronavirus lockdown has put them at greater risk.

NHS England issued guidance in early April on suspending visits to all hospitals, but said exceptions could be made for people with mental health conditions “where not being present would cause the patient to be distressed”.

On June 5 the suspension was lifted, with new guidance saying decisions on visiting are “subject to local discretion by trusts and other NHS bodies”.

Harriet Harman (pictured), committee chairwoman, said the initial guidance was not respected and therefore blanket bans on visitors were established at a local level.

The committee believes the default position now is that visits are not taking place “unless people really, really fight for them”, she said.

She said: “The default position is you don’t get it unless you kick up an enormous effort.

“And you know, parents of young people in this situation, they shouldn’t be ground down by having to do yet more jumping through hoops.

“If it’s good for the young person in this institution, then why make the parent fight for it?

“They should actually make it the default position that the visits are welcomed unless there’s a reason not to.

“It’s just too easy isn’t it to say ‘no visits’, but actually that makes the young person even worse and harms them, and therefore even in the immediate term let alone the medium and long term, it’s just not in the interest of the organisation as well as, above all, the young person.”

She continued: “We are not interested in what is written down on a piece of paper…we want an instruction to these local organisations that they must recognise the importance of these parental visits and allow them to happen.”

Ms Harman said the Care Quality Commission (CQC) should be responsible for ensuring national guidance is followed.

But she added: “I think a really fierce and committed regulator who is going to be ultra concerned to discover what is really going on is absolutely at the heart of it, and that’s what we don’t have at the moment.”

The report says the CQC should carry out all inspections unannounced, focusing on institutions with a history of abuse, and set up a hotline for patients and families to report concerns.

Kevin Cleary, deputy chief inspector for hospitals at the Care Quality Commission, said: “We have committed to having a full programme of responsive inspections under way again for these types of settings as soon as possible but this will not delay us from inspecting services where we are concerned about risks right now.

“Our programme will include unannounced focused inspections for services we have identified as high risk and will include evening and weekend visits where this is possible.

“Family visits with young people in hospitals may have been challenging during the pandemic but we are encouraging providers to avoid applying blanket restrictions and to support people to maintain contact with their loved ones, including visits, during this time and at all times.

“We will follow up with services where we know this is not happening. We already have a telephone line for people to give feedback about their care.”

Sara D’Arcy, who works for the learning disability charity Mencap, said the charity was supporting people who not only are unable to visit their loved ones in person, but are also having phone and video calls withheld.

She told the briefing: “There’s a real lack of transparency and lack of working with families that is incredibly concerning, and incredibly concerning this time.”

Figures from April 2020 show that 595 children and young people under the age of 25 remain in detention in specialist inpatient units.

The committee is urging NHS England to write to all hospitals, including private ones, stating they must allow visits unless there is a specific reason relating to an individual case why it would not be safe.

Its report said while claims of progress “sound encouraging”, evidence from the mothers of young people detained paints a disturbing picture.

In May, the committee heard from two mothers who said their children had tried to kill themselves amid frequent restraint and isolation and a lack of visits.

The committee wants figures on physical and medical restraint, and instances of segregation longer than 22 hours a day, to be published every week.

And “now, more than ever” ensuring young people are discharged to safe homes in the community should be a top priority for the Government.

An NHS spokeswoman said: “Our national guidance sent to hospitals and other local health services has always supported visits across all inpatient settings when local organisations agree it is safe and appropriate to do so, and we have stated clearly that there must be no blanket ban.”

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